Time’s running out for the Mekong giant catfish

By Nguyen Quy   July 9, 2018 | 09:55 pm PT
Vietnamese restaurants are openly violating the law to include a critically endangered giant catfish on their menus.

An expose by Rachel Nuwer in the National Geographic documents the precarious situation that the Mekong River’s giant catfish faces as a result of willful violations by both restaurant owners and their customers in Vietnam.

A Mekong giant catfish is advertised in the Facebook page of Lang Nghe restaurant in Da Nang.

A Mekong giant catfish is advertised in the Facebook page of Lang Nghe restaurant in Da Nang.

Scores of Vietnamese restaurants are advertising and serving the critically endangered fish as their specialty, in blatant disregard of the country’s wildlife protection regulations and with apparent immunity, the report says.

The Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), which can measure up to three meters (10 feet) and weigh as much as 300 kg (650 pounds), are being smuggled from Cambodia to restaurants across Vietnam, the report says.

It notes that while these fish are traditionally considered sacred in Cambodia, and fishermen usually consider it bad luck to net one, many are finding it difficult to resist the lure of big money being offered by Vietnamese businesses at more than $60 to $90 a kilo.

Driving demand for this fish in Vietnamese restaurants is the belief among middle-aged men that its meat brings good luck and boosts libido.

Since 2008, several species of megafish including the giant catfish have been on the conservation red list and protected by Vietnamese law.

While the penal code of Cambodia fails to specify punishment for poaching imperiled fish, those accused of illegal exploitation of those species in Vietnam can receive hefty fines of up to $88,000 for individuals and $658,000 for businesses, even sentenced to 15 years in jail.

However, the law is not being implemented effectively and restaurant owners continue to list this endangered fish on their menu, with a restaurant in Da Nang even showing videos of a giant catfish being cooked.

The National Geographic report says that this restaurant consumes at least six fish a month, and is not shy of posting eye-catching advertisements on social media as well as videos showing how these fish will be prepared for various “tasty dishes.”

Long Quang Bui, general manager of Lang Nghe, said that it works closely with fishermen for the supply. “Fishermen are our partners, and we are their partner,” Bui was quoted by NatGeo as saying.

Huynh Anh, the restaurant's owner, said that “It’s not difficult for me to get these fish to Vietnam.” “You just need some original documents and bills,” he said.

Lang Nghe restaurant features the giant fish on its menu with prices of VND1.9 million ($82.44) a kilogram for a group of six.

Zeb Hogan, an explorer who has studied the Mekong River system for more than 10 years, told NatGeo that “The new trade seems to be very pervasive and growing very rapidly.”

“It needs to be dealt with if these species are going to survive,” Hogan said.

Those who are running restaurants are making efforts to broaden their connections with the Cambodian market to find a stable source of giant catfish.

According to the NatGeo report, Vietnamese traders in Cambodia are key players in facilitating this illegal trade, and fish are being smuggled over Vietnamese borders and, in some cases, being flown on Vietnamese airlines.

The rare fish is also being served in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it said.

A waiter at the Hang Duong Quan Restaurant in the southern city said, as cited in the report, that “The owner even has relatives in Cambodia to find and source the fish for him.”

Marc Goichot, a top specialist at WWF Greater Mekong, said that it is difficult to monitor the smuggling of fish from Cambodia and Laos into Vietnam to have a precise number, "but the fact that they openly appear on menus of several restaurants in most large cities in Vietnam is a proof it is happening."

The Mekong giant catfish used to be abundant on the river with thousands caught annually a century ago, Goichot said, citing historical records. But with more fishers active on the Mekong, scientists estimated that the fish's population declined more than 90 percent over two decades, from the 1980s to 2000s.

As the fish is critically endangered, each and every individual consumed in Vietnam is putting significant threat to the survival of the entire species, he wrote to VnExpress International.

He said that protection of the fish would be challenged by the fact that not all customers are informed of the risk the species face, and many may not know it is illegal to catch, sell or eat them. "As long as they will be a demand ... then the threat will remain, and the risk of extinction will further increase," he said.

The faith of rare fish in the Mekong, Goichot said, is also threatened by other factors such as pollution, and hydropower dams that block the migration of the giant catfish to and from the spawning grounds.

"It is imperative that strong and immediate action is taken or they will disappear forever," he said.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has several times called for conservation of the rare giant catfish and demanded that the Vietnamese government do more to save the endangered species from extinction.

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